The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1905)

The return of Sherlock Holmes

Having killed off Holmes in the 1893 story The Final Problem, Conan Doyle came under intense pressure from fans and publishers to revive him. Finally he did so in 1901-2 serial The Hound of the Baskervilles, though this was set before Holmes’ fictional demise and so doesn’t mention it. And then came these 13 new short stories, published monthly in the Strand from September 1903 to December 1904, and collected in book form in March 1905. In the first of them Conan Doyle bites the bullet and gives his explanation of how Holmes survived his fight with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.

In the ‘real’ world there had been a 10 year gap between the 1893 death story and the 1903 miraculous survival story; in the Holmes universe the gap is just three years, from 1891 when The Final Problem is set until 1894 when the Empty House is set. This period is referred to by Holmes specialists as ‘The Great Hiatus’, and the first story also describes his adventures around the globe during this period.

The 1890s, decade of -isms

I’ve read the 1890s described as the decade of -isms because so many movements began and proliferated. It was the Yellow decade, the Mauve Decade, the Naughty Nineties, part of the Gilded Age, the fin-de-siècle, the Reckless Decade, and saw the flourishing of symbolism, Art Nouveau, Arts & Crafts, Aestheticism, Art for Art’s Sake, post-Impressionism, neo-Impressionism, the Secession and Jugendstil in the arts, the zenith of Imperialism in Britain and the USA (the Spanish-American War 1898), and the flourishing of nihilism, anarchism, communism, socialism, the New Woman and feminism, vegetarianism and so on.

What all this really shows is that the decade marks the beginning of the Modern Period because too much was beginning to happen, too many social, economic, political and cultural trends, with international affairs becoming more complicated as new powers arose (America and Japan) and old powers threatened Britain’s hegemony (Germany looming).

Theories of degeneration

But Holmes himself is not immune to the siren call of the innumerable theories which the age spawned. As we know, one of the consequences of Darwin placing humans firmly in the Natural world and the product of evolution rather than Divine Creation, was that thinkers galore pondered the possibility that humankind could be actively bred to create a new race of superbeings – an idea that appealed to Nietzsche and HG Wells, to name but two – or its disastrous opposite, that the race or individual races were just as capable of being degraded, of collapsing through moral and physical decay. This theory had been immensely popularised by Max Nordau in his gloomy bestseller Degeneration (1896) whose tone is given by this extract:

‘We stand now in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; of a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria…’

and received garish expression in Bram Stoker’s Gothic fantasy about an invasion of blood-drinking anti-humans from Eastern Europe who corrupted and depraved pure, white virginal damsels – Dracula (1897).

In these troubled times the Holmes stories bring tremendous reassurance, that justice can be brought to the seething underworld of crime and order to the confusion of international affairs by the steely logic of one patriotic, fair-minded, aristocratic superman.

Holmes and the Boer War

The Boer War (1899-2902) had given all thinking Britons a profound shock. It was the first time in decades that the British Army had fought white men and, instead of the easy victories we’d come to expect of ‘our boys’ over fuzzy wuzzies and tribesmen, it turned out that British soldiers and British generals were simply no match for the fit, motivated and highly skilled Boers, or of the colonial troops from Australia, New Zealand or Canada who came to our aid. Eventually we won the war, but only after being internationally humiliated.

Interestingly, Conan Doyle and Kipling both responded to the South African debâcle by setting up gun clubs in their neighbourhoods with a view to training the local yeoman up to the standards of the Boers. And in their writings there is an increased emphasis on the importance of good breeding and the danger of its opposite, moral decay.

Thus Kipling’s poem, The Islanders (1902) warns the English that they have become lazy and decadent and will lose their Empire unless they buck up their ideas. Thus Conan Doyle wrote not one but two books, justifying Britain’s conduct of the Boer War (for which patriotic work he was knighted in 1902).

And thus, in a much more implicit way, the Holmes stories after The Hiatus show a keener interest in the subjects of Englishness, of lineage, of noble families either maintaining themselves or degenerating.

The Hound of the Baskervilles a novel about Degeneration The whole plot of The Hound is a civil war among the Baskerville clan: the upright Sir Henry, nephew of the noble Sir Charles and toughened up by a life in the Anglo-Saxon colonies, is threatened by the grandson of the Sir Charles’s degenerate younger brother Rodger, of part-Spanish (ie non Anglo) parentage, now masquerading as the lepidopterist Stapleton, a black-hearted villain who has inherited the degenerate blood of the lecherous libertine Hugo Baskerville. Good blood versus bad blood. Nobility versus degeneracy. And a man toughened and matured by life in the Anglo-Saxon colonies versus a creeping, hypocritical villain brought up in corrupt Latin America.

Thus, in the story of his return, we find Holmes speculating on the importance of family and breeding:

There are some trees, Watson, which grow to a certain height, and then suddenly develop some unsightly eccentricity. You will see it often in humans. I have a theory that the individual represents in his development the whole procession of his ancestors, and that such a sudden turn to good or evil stands for some strong influence which came into the line of his pedigree. The person becomes, as it were, the epitome of the history of his own family. (The Adventure of The Empty House)

This post-Boer War anxiety leaks out various ways, including its opposite, the over-enthusiastic patriotism or jingoism which characterised the period and can be defined as ‘excessive bias in judging one’s own country as superior to others’:

‘It is my duty to warn you that it will be used against you,’ cried the inspector, with the magnificent fair play of the British criminal law.


To some extent these anxieties are the continuation of Victorian stereotypes, but with a new, pseudo-scientific edge. After all, stereotypes of all kinds are the staple of both detective fiction and Victorian melodrama. The Holmes texts are extremely simple-minded in this respect. Can you work out which of the following is a wicked baddy and which is a sterling English goody?

He was blinking in the bright light of the corridor, and peering at us and at the smouldering fire. It was an odious face – crafty, vicious, malignant, with shifty, light-gray eyes and white lashes. (The Adventure of the Norwood Builder)

He was a fine creature, this man of the old English soil—simple, straight, and gentle, with his great, earnest blue eyes and broad, comely face. His love for his wife and his trust in her shone in his features. (The Adventure of the Dancing Men)

Or take honest true Captain Croker in The Adventure of the Abbey Grange.

There was a sound upon the stairs, and our door was opened to admit as fine a specimen of manhood as ever passed through it. He was a very tall young man, golden-moustached, blue-eyed, with a skin which had been burned by tropical suns, and a springy step, which showed that the huge frame was as active as it was strong.

Tall, blue eyes, strong & fit from exercise, preferably in the colonies; that is the ideal hero.

Goodies and baddies There is something reassuring and consoling about Holmes’s knowledge, about his certainty – the world of crime isn’t opaque and murky but clear and obvious to him and, via these stereotypes, it is made childishly simple for us. Tall with blue eyes, good; short or dark-haired, bad.

Superlatives At the same time, there is something childish, something of the playground, in his confident superlatives; all the people Holmes has to deal with are the best or the worst: Abe Slaney is, apparently, ‘the most dangerous crook in Chicago’. Jack Woodley is the greatest brute and bully in South Africa – a man whose name is a holy terror from Kimberley to Johannesburg. (The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist). Charles Augustus Milverton is ‘the worst man in London… the king of all the blackmailers.’ ‘Lord Mount-James is is one of the richest men in England.’ Sir Eustace Brackenstall is the richest man in Kent. Lady Hilda Trelawney Hope is ‘the most lovely woman in London’. The wickedest man, the noblest woman, the Napoleon of crime etc. A comic strip view of the world.

The abhuman, or humans becoming animals

The Wikipedia article on Degeneration introduced me to the term abhuman – ‘a “Gothic body” or something that is only vestigially human and possibly in the process of becoming something monstrous, such as a vampire or werewolf’. If not quite Gothic monsters, it seems to me that these post Boer War stories are nonetheless haunted by the notion of people, criminals specifically, turning into animals, of the degraded subhuman emerging from the human:

Have you not tethered a young kid under a tree, lain above it with your rifle, and waited for the bait to bring up your tiger? This empty house is my tree, and you are my tiger. (The Adventure of the Empty House)

It was a long and melancholy vigil, and yet brought with it something of the thrill which the hunter feels when he lies beside the water-pool, and waits for the coming of the thirsty beast of prey. What savage creature was it which might steal upon us out of the darkness? Was it a fierce tiger of crime, which could only be taken fighting hard with flashing fang and claw, or would it prove to be some skulking jackal, dangerous only to the weak and unguarded? (The Adventure of Black Peter)

Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the Zoo, and see the slithery, gliding, venomous creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that’s how Milverton impresses me. I’ve had to do with fifty murderers in my career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion which I have for this fellow. (The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton)

It was evidently taken by a snapshot from a small camera. It represented an alert, sharp-featured simian man, with thick eyebrows and a very peculiar projection of the lower part of the face, like the muzzle of a baboon. (The Adventure of the Six Napoleons)


As usual, the stories are littered with references to other stories which Watson hasn’t had time to write up, thus continually expanding the Holmes universe and reinforcing the Holmes myth.

The references in this volume include the case of the Ferrers Documents, and the Abergavenny murder (The Adventure of the Priory School). the sudden death of Cardinal Tosca, the case of the canary-trainer, the tragedy of Woodman’s Lee (The Adventure of Black Peter), the Conk-Singleton forgery case (The Adventure of the Six Napoleons), the repulsive story of the red leech and the terrible death of Crosby, the banker, the Addleton tragedy and the singular contents of the ancient British barrow, the famous Smith-Mortimer succession case and the tracking and arrest of Huret, the Boulevard assassin (The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez).

The stories

  • The Adventure of the Empty House (The return of Holmes). The Hon. Ronald Adair has returned from Australia, where his father is governor of a province, with his mother. He is found shot dead in a sealed room. Holmes proves it was done with a rifle by Colonel Moran who served in India but had gone bad, over a gambling debt.
  • The Adventure of the Norwood Builder – John Hector McFarlane is framed by the wicked Jonas Oldacre who hated his mother ever since she rejected him for a better man, and therefore faked his own murder in order to frame JHM. Norwood, south London.
  • The Adventure of the Dancing Men – Hilton Cubitt, fine upstanding Norfolk squire marries an American lady and then mysterious letters and notes start appearing, scaring her. Obviously this a Return of the Repressed type story, sure enough American crook Abe Slaney believes she’s promised to him and there’s a shoot-out in which the upstanding English squire is killed.
  • The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist – Violet Smith goes to be housekeeper to a Mr Carruthers near Farnham. Every Saturday she is followed on her way to the train by a solitary cyclist. On the day H&W go down, her trap is empty because she has been kidnapped and forcibly married by wicked Jack Woodley, because she has just become heir to Ralph Smith, who made his fortune in South African gold.
  • The Adventure of the Priory School – Thorneycroft Huxtable, The Duke of Holdernesse, has allowed his wicked natural son, James, to arrange kidnap his son by the Duchess, Lord Saltire, but hadn’t reckoned on the rascally kidnapper killing the schoolmaster who followed the young heir.
  • The Adventure of Black Peter – a drunk old sailor and tyrant to his family is found transfixed by a harpoon in his garden shed/workroom in Forest Row, Sussex. H&W watch a young man break into the shed and keen young Hoplins arrest him but he claims innocence that his father fled a failing bank with securities on a boat to Norway; he suspects Black Peter’s ship picked him up, murdered him and was selling the securities. Holmes advertises for a harpooner and of the applicants correctly identifies the killer who claims it was self defence.
  • The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton – client Lady Eva Blackwell. The worst man in London collects information to blackmail highborn men and women. H&W break into his house with a view to retrieving the letters which incriminate their client and, hidden, watch another high-born women assassinate CAM.
  • The Adventure of the Six Napoleons – Lestrade comes with a case of plaster casts of Napoleon which have been burgled and shattered. On the latest one an Italian is found with his throat cut. Holmes pieces together that Beppo, a savage simian criminal member of the Mafia, stole ‘the famous black pearl of the Borgias’ and, on the run from the cops, stopped by the plaster casting workshop where he worked and quickly embedded the pearl into one of the many casts of Napoleon the factory was producing. Released from prison a year later, he’s systematically tracking down all the casts to recover the pearl.
  • The Adventure of the Three Students – Hilton Soames, tutor at one of our ancient universities, steps out of his room for a moment while proofing tomorrow’s Greek exam texts, when he returns they’ve been removed along with odd signs. Holmes deduces which of the possible undergraduates did it, and how he was protected by Soames scout who was previously the student’s father’s servant. The whole thing a hymn to Edwardian probity as the undergraduate offers a fulsome apology and goes to take up a job in the Rhodesian police. Empire as refuge, opportunity for a second chance, to redeem oneself.
  • The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez – Inspector Stanley Hopkins arrives with news of the murder of Mr. Willoughby Smith, secretary to Professor Coram of Yoxley Old Place, Kent. Turns out the old professor is a former Nihilist from Tsarist Russia who turned in his comrades and fled to England. His former wife, Anna, followed him here to secure papers which proved her lover was innocent & release him from the salt mines but poor Willoughby intervened and was accidentally stabbed. She kills herself.
  • The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter – being student Godfrey Staunton who abandons the Cambridge rugby team on the eve of the match against Oxford, last seen running off with a bearded man. Trail leads to Cambridge and one Dr Armstrong who is all obstruction until Holmes tracks Staunton to a cottage where he had been called to the bedside of his beautiful but poor-born wife, married and treated in secret because it was against the wishes of his super-rich uncle Lord Mount-James.
  • The Adventure of the Abbey Grange – Inspector Hopkins calls H&W down to Chiselhurst to Abbey Grange where the horrible drunkard Sir Eustace Brackenstall is dead. His wife was tied up by a local gang of burglars who killed EB and made off with the silver. Except they didn’t Holmes deduces that the entire story was cooked up by honest bluff Captain Croker who loves Mary, Lady Brackenstall, and was in a midnight assignation when Lord B came raving in and they had a fair fight. Holmes tests Croker’s loyalty, then releases him. True to my Empire theme, Mary is Australian, and Capt C a man who has seen service in sunbaked climes.
  • The Adventure of the Second Stain – the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, no less, require Holmes to find a letter written by an angry foreign leader whose publication could lead to war. It emerges the PM’s wife was being blackmailed and forced to hand over the Diplomatic Letter in exchange for a youthful love letter. Holmes helps her replace it. England is saved! At the end of which, Watson declares Holmes has now retired to the Sussex Downs to keep bees!

Related links


A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1891–1892 in The Strand)
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1892–1893 in The Strand)
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1903–1904 in The Strand)
His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1908–1917)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1921–1927)

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  1. The short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle | Books & Boots

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